Inside the Sensational Business of 'Rescuing' Sex Workers
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
Human Trafficking: The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. - United Nations
Kathryn Griffin is late to the weekly meeting at a women's crisis center near downtown Houston, but she enters the room like a rock star, drawing applause from the dozen or so people in the room. Griffin knows a thing or two about putting on a show. She grew up in a musical family, has made national television appearances and toured with the R&B musician Rick James as a young woman. Now her audience is a group of people recovering from drug addiction, mostly women, who struggled with poverty and sold sex at some point in their lives before getting in trouble with the law and meeting Griffin in jail or court.
Griffin explains that she is late because she was meeting with new defendants at Houston's specialty court for young adults charged with prostitution for the first time. Griffin says the defendants were busted working at strip clubs or after being "called up" on Backpage.com, a classified website commonly used by sex workers to connect with clients. The aggressive vice squads on Houston's police force also use websites like Backpage to set up sting operations, which in turn connect Griffin with some of her clients.
Griffin says the women in the prostitution court had bad attitudes. One denied being a sex worker and claimed she never thought she would end up in handcuffs. If she wasn't a prostitute, Griffin asks, then why was she in "ho court?" The group erupts in laughter. "Stank attitudes get you locked up and thrown away," Griffin warns.The meeting is a weekly event held by Griffin's organization, We've Been There Done That, which acts as an extension of similar programs for people convicted of prostitution at Houston's local jail and two state prison facilities. Judges began sentencing women to Griffin's program at the Houston jail in 2013, and Griffin uses the outside organization to support them after they are released. Judges also order some participants, especially minors, to attend the group's meetings as part of diversion programs, but others come on their own after attending Griffin's meetings in jail.
The meeting resembles a 12-step program for substance abuse, only with the energy of a small gospel revival. One by one, each participant states their name and the vices that sent them on a downward spiral - crack cocaine, methamphetamine, abusive boyfriends and even shoplifting makeup. Some are months into their recovery; others have been clean for years. Griffin only sits down for moments at a time, preferring to be on her feet and bouncing from one participant to another, asking for updates on their lives and personal progress. The conversation is crude but honest, with phrases like "swallowing DNA" causing laughter across the room. "We can laugh now because we are safe," Griffin says.
Griffin's father, Ed Townsend, co-wrote the hit song "Let's Get It On" with Marvin Gaye. As a young woman, Griffin joined Rick James' "Cold Blooded" tour in 1983. She developed an expensive drug habit that left her broke on the streets of Los Angeles, where she made money as a sex worker to get her fix. She says that she should know about drug rehab programs. After all, she attended 21 of them.
Griffin is a certified drug abuse prevention specialist, but she has no formal training in counseling sex workers and victims of sex trafficking, which is her specialty within the Harris County Sheriff's Office. Instead, Griffin talks of earning her Ph.D. on the streets.
Griffin was in and out of jail and rehab until she ended up in a special court for drug offenders in Houston about 10 years ago. She volunteered at the Houston City Hall and for a local politician, and she turned her life around as that volunteering turned into job opportunities. She considers herself a model for the women in her programs, and highlights her trajectory as an "ex-con" who now contracts with the local jail and state prisons and speaks at events across the country. "I had to get out there and do this stuff for no money for years, but look at what it turned into," Griffin declares.
Griffin says that her program boasts a 13 percent recidivism rate compared to the national recidivism rate of 88 percent for her target demographic. It's unclear where these numbers are drawn from, as Griffin did not respond to a follow-up email, but some studies suggest that the majority of women arrested for prostitution are repeat offenders. It's also unclear what her "demographic" actually is.
Griffin is currently under fire from sex worker and human rights advocates who say her tough-love, one-size-fits-all approach is flawed and fails to respect basic human dignity. People who are arrested for prostitution are not necessarily poor and dependent on drugs, and so-called "rescue-and-recovery" operations that lump sex workers in with victims of sex trafficking have lead to human rights abuses across the globe. Many activists say Griffin's habit of thrusting her clients into the limelight, whether in the local and national media or at PR events for the former sheriff's mayoral campaign, isn't just manipulative, it's dangerous.
Back at the meeting, there's a pause as Griffin invites a group of observers to the front of the room. They introduce themselves as a local television production team that Griffin has hired to make a TV show about We've Been There Done That. A member of the team explains that the show will follow the women through their journey to recovery. Everyone is welcome to appear on the show, but participation is not mandatory. Griffin, who has appeared on "Dr. Drew's Life Changers" and a Jerry Springer spinoff, claps her hands and chants, "Oh yeah, oh yeah" - she wants to know if everyone is interested in appearing on the show, and asks for a show of hands. Nervous glances are exchanged across the room, but almost everyone raises a hand into the air.
On the other side of town, Kamylla wipes tears from her eyes as she recalls the time she spent with We've Been There Done That earlier this year. She had little in common with the other women in the rehabilitation group besides being arrested and charged with prostitution. She didn't need any tough love or drug rehabilitation; she just needed some money. The experience was "humiliating," but it wasn't the first time she had been humiliated by the same people who claimed to be coming to her aid.
Kamylla, who cannot reveal her real name due to legal concerns, is one of three plaintiffs suing the television network A&E and an affiliated production company over the now-defunct reality television show "8 Minutes" for breach of contract, fraud and other complaints. The following reporting is based on the legal complaint against "8 Minutes," which was recently filed in a Houston court, and interviews with Kamylla and activists who were in contact with her in the months following her appearance on the show.
"8 Minutes" featured Pastor Kevin Brown, an ex-cop whose California-based Christian ministry includes missions to rescue women from the sex industry. Reports indicate that these missions rarely lead to successful "rescues," but Brown was able to land the leading role on the reality show based on his supposed success in the anti-trafficking field. In the show, Brown travels to Houston and poses as a client or "john" to meet with sex workers and "possible victims of sex trafficking" in hotels, where he claims to have eight minutes to convince them to quit the sex business before a potentially violent sex trafficker lurking nearby could catch wind of the situation and put everyone in danger. With the clock ticking, Brown's team offers the women "a way out" of "the life" with resources such as a safe place to sleep, health care and educational, employment, legal and rehabilitative services. At least, that's what they said on TV.
Kamylla does not identify as a sex worker. She worked as a businesswoman in South America before falling on hard times and moving to the United States to build a better life. She was unable to find steady work in Houston and became financially desperate after her husband lost his job and struggled with medical issues. The decision to try sex work was not an easy one to make, but her family needed rent money, so she posted some online ads for fetish services without saying a word to her husband and daughter. She was thrilled when an "8 Minutes" staffer responded and told her she wouldn't have to do sex work after all. If she agreed to appear on the show, then the producers would provide her with everything she needed to get her family back on its feet. The producer said it would be a "life-changing event," according to the lawsuit.
Unfortunately, "8 Minutes" was not exactly based in reality, the lawsuit claims. Kamylla was not stuck in the so-called "life" of sex work to begin with, and "8 Minutes" contacted her and other women who posted erotic services ads, asking them to appear on the show days, and in some cases, weeks before they met Brown in a hotel room full of hidden cameras. Negotiations were made and contracts were signed. Friends and family members, not dangerous thugs or human traffickers, drove the plaintiffs to the hotels where they were filmed for the show's first season. They were asked to act surprised when Brown revealed, on camera, that he was not a "john" but a God-fearing do-gooder who had come to usher them into a better life. Filming the interview took 40 minutes to an hour or more, not eight minutes, and, the plaintiffs allege, the promise of a better life was not based in reality either.
Kamylla met with Keya "Denise" Mason, an employee of Relativity Media, the production company behind "8 Minutes," before agreeing to appear on the show, according to the lawsuit. She told Mason she worried that claiming to do sex work on national TV would be humiliating but agreed to do it in order to end her family's cycle of eviction and hunger. Kamylla explained that she and her family needed to see doctors for different medical conditions and that her car was unreliable, which was making it difficult to find a job.
Here's how Mason responded, according to the lawsuit:
Oh please ... We are A&E and a Hollywood production company ... they have advertisers that are huge companies with tons of connections. Anything you need for them is only a matter of a few calls, a car, medical and dental treatment, clothing, an allowance. They will do what it takes to get you and your family back on their feet.
Kamylla thought she would be given everything she needed - a new home, medical care and maybe even a new job. She was overjoyed and told Mason that she was like the talk show hosts Oprah or Ellen, surprising an audience member with a new car. When Kamylla later contacted Mason for the promised assistance after receiving an eviction notice, Mason said she would have to wait until after interviewing with Brown on camera, according to the lawsuit. When it was time to film, Mason pushed Kamylla to sign the contract in a parking lot without giving her much time to review it, and Kamylla could not read well due to an untreated eye condition. After Brown and his camera crew interviewed Kamylla in a hotel room, Mason gave her $250 and told her that a producer would call her soon with information about the resources that would help her start a "new life." That call never came. Kamylla tried desperately to get a hold of Mason, but Mason never returned her calls.
Kamylla's fellow plaintiffs have similar complaints, claiming that "8 Minutes" provided them with a small payment and a list of already overburdened public resources or simply ignored them after the shoot. They also claim that Relativity Media failed to blur their faces, leading to public embarrassment when the show finally aired on A&E. "'8 Minutes,'" their lawsuit concludes, "was taking advantage of the most marginalized and powerless people in society in order to get them to provide edu-tainment, thrills, and cathartic release for a jaded audience." A&E has consistently refused to make any statements about the show in the media.
When I call Pastor Brown, he answers the phone at his church in Santa Ana, California, with a friendly "God bless you." He sounds eager to talk about his work in the human trafficking field, but when asked about his work in Houston, Brown says he doesn't have enough time to talk about it and will call back. He never does. Further attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
Once again left with few options for paying her rent, Kamylla and a close friend posted another ad on an escort site several weeks later, offering fetish services. Kamylla says they were just "two women trying to feed their kids." An "8 Minutes" staffer responded to the ad and offered to pay her $40 for referring her friend and coworker to the production team. Kamylla angrily refused. The next call came from a client who would turn out to be an undercover cop.
Unaware of the coming sting, Kamylla and her associate began negotiating a fetish session with the male undercover police officer. They met a few days later at a hotel. The undercover officer was wearing a wire, and Truthout has obtained the recording. The quality of the recording is poor, but Kamylla and her friend can be heard discussing the fetish services they can provide, none of which involve sexual intercourse. The undercover cop continues to ask about paying extra for penetrative sex, which is illegal in Texas if money changes hands. Kamylla's friend is open to the idea, but Kamylla can be heard saying "no" and "shut up" before offering to leave the room and let the other two discuss the matter.
The recording ends as the undercover officer leaves, presumably to use an ATM. The vice squad busts through the door moments later, and Kamylla found herself laying facedown on the ground, a boot placed firmly on her back as she was handcuffed and arrested for prostitution. Traumatized, Kamylla felt like she would be in jail forever. Luckily, her friend's husband bailed them out a few days later. She was charged with agreeing to have anal sex with the undercover officer for a fee, according to court records.
Kamylla claims she never offered sexual intercourse, but she could not afford a lawyer. She called Brown's team again and told them that she had been arrested because they had failed to help her get out of her financial situation. She asked if they could help her with legal representation. Instead of connecting Kamylla with an attorney, they connected her with a different resource: Kathryn Griffin.
Sex worker activists began ripping "8 Minutes" apart soon after the show aired on A&E in early April. Writing for the New Republic, writer and organizer Alana Massey argued that the show was based on the "absurd notion that sex workers have never considered leaving the industry and that none of them are there by choice," so all they need is some benevolent rescuer to talk some sense into them.
"In the face of limited options, the financial incentive is at the heart of nearly every sex worker's professional choices," Massey wrote. "'8 Minutes' might be a jobs program for its star and crew; it doesn't, however, do anything but shame its Houston-based guest stars. Any attempt to coerce them out of sex work in the absence of viable work alternatives is an invitation to starve."
Kamylla and other women who were burned by the show shared their stories with major news outlets, and soon "8 Minutes" was under fire from all directions. A coalition of sex worker advocacy and anti-trafficking groups wrote a letter to the show's producer, Tom Forman, informing him that "exploiting the lives and images of those engaged in the sex trade for entertainment is disrespectful at best and immoral at worst." Facing harsh criticism over a show that already had low ratings, A&E canceled "8 Minutes" in early May with three episodes remaining in the first season. The network made no comments to the media.
It was a big victory for sex workers. For years, the sex worker movement has been at odds with a conservative wing of the anti-human trafficking movement occupied by evangelical Christians and "abolitionist" feminists who share a desire to put an end to prostitution and the sex trade. These "antis," as sex work activists call them, are notorious for equating the commercial sex industry with "slavery" and conflating sex work, which is a broad range of jobs that people do for a variety of reasons, and sex trafficking, which involves forcing or coercing people to sell sex with emotional manipulation or threats of violence. They are also known for fundraising millions of dollars by selling sensationally brutal stories of sex slavery to the media - some of the most high profile of which have been exposed as half-truths and even outright lies.
In one recording, Griffin insists that a criminal is a criminal, and criminals hurt people.
"8 Minutes" confirmed what sex workers have been saying for years about the so-called "rescue industry," an international amalgamation of nongovernmental organizations and missionary groups that attempt to "rescue" women from their alleged captors in the sex trade. Activists have long argued that these groups are more concerned with fundraising and amassing political power against the sex industry than providing real assistance to the people they aim to "save." Plus, these groups are often willing to work with the police, who regularly harass, abuse, profile, arrest and jail sex workers wherever their livelihoods are criminalized. Just as the ex-cop on "8 Minutes" offered resources for leaving the sex trade that turned out to be minimal at best, anti-trafficking nongovernmental organizations in Asia "rescue" women from brothels, only to offer them low-wage jobs making clothing that the groups can sell back home to raise money. If the legal complaint against "8 Minutes" is accurate, then the anti-sex trafficking reality show could be accused of labor trafficking the same women it was claiming to save.
"8 Minutes" was taken off the air, but questions remained. Why was the show shot in Houston and not California, where Brown was from? Brown said he was working with local police, so which local law enforcement officials decided to collaborate with an effort to shove some of the most vulnerable and stigmatized members of their community in front of the bright lights of Hollywood? Activists found indications of answers in the show's final credits, where the Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff's Department and Kathryn Griffin were all included in the "special thanks" section.
At the time, Adrian Garcia was the sheriff of Houston, and in April he resigned to run for mayor of Houston. Sex worker activists began connecting the dots on social media. It turned out that Griffin has Garcia to thank for her program in the Houston jail, along with its $40,000 annual budget. The activists dug up photos of Griffin and Garcia appearing in public together and were outraged to discover via social media that Griffin's We've Been There Done That participants, many of whom were once held in Garcia's jail, were asked to volunteer for Garcia's campaign, and posed with him for photos wearing their organization's T-shirt. "Adrian Garcia is basically arresting himself this little army of free labor," one activist told Truthout.
Griffin, who has been applauded in the local media for bringing "ex-prostitutes" to the voting booth, says the idea that she is using her rehabilitation group to support Garcia's campaign is a "misconception and a flat-out lie." She says she will talk to many candidates in upcoming elections about opportunities for her members to "volunteer professionally and get connected to the community and issues they care about." It was Garcia, however, who initially authorized and funded her jailhouse diversion and recovery program, and for that she is "very grateful."
Griffin and the members of her group have plenty of reason to engage politically. Criminal laws in Texas are highly punitive even for nonviolent offenses, and reforms are badly needed. Griffin considers herself a reformer, and she has successfully advocated for the prostitution diversion courts where young, first-time offenders are connected to "treatment intervention" resources to help them leave the sex trade, as well as a recent measure that made food stamps available to people convicted of drug felonies. She now wants to remove barriers to jobs and housing for people leaving jail and prison so they are less likely to recidivate.
For sex worker activists, Kamylla isn't just a victim of a deceptive reality show; she is a victim of criminalization.
Griffin's critics in the sex worker movement are unimpressed, as they would prefer that nobody be forced into a jail cell or rehab for doing sex work in the first place. They got in touch with Kamylla, who had been attending We've Been There Done That meetings on the recommendation of a lawyer that Griffin set her up with. Griffin and the attorney, who discussed her case behind closed doors, according to Kamylla and the activists, told Kamylla that joining the group would win points with the judge, but the meetings made Kamylla miserable. Griffin was angry with Kamylla for speaking to the media about "8 Minutes" and ridiculed her in front of the group, the activists said.
Sex worker activists obtained audio recordings from some of the meetings that Kamylla attended, and the content made them furious. In one recording, which is posted on YouTube, Griffin insists that a criminal is a criminal, and criminals hurt people, so even anyone who has "prostituted" even "one time" must admit that they share common ground with rapists and even Charles Manson. In another recording, Griffin tells a woman that her spirit isn't "broken," but her "brain" and "mind" are "broken."
Garcia's campaign also comes up during the meetings, with Griffin and her assistant mentioning that volunteers will be needed. "We need you," Griffin says at one point. "Adrian Garcia needs you."
Domina Elle, a sex worker and activist in Colorado who analyzed the recordings, says she would be "disgusted" if she were forced to attend Griffin's meetings. Sex workers come from a variety of backgrounds, she said, and they do not all need Griffin's crackdown form of therapy. "You just don't talk to people the way she talks to people," Elle says. "They are merely objects for her to use in her agenda. They are not human beings. There is no tenderness, no compassion there. It is just all about her agenda. She wants to do a TV show? They're there, 'whose with me?' She wants to get her friend Adrian Garcia elected to mayor? They are there, posing for the camera."
As Kamylla's story spread across social media, activists organized a crowdfunding effort and were able to hire her a new lawyer, who quickly informed her that she was under no obligation to attend We've Been There Done That meetings. Instead of relying on Griffin's program to win the judge's favor, the attorney demanded the evidence against her, which amounted to the recording from the undercover officer's wire. Her case was dismissed within weeks. On the motion to dismiss, the assistant district attorney wrote "see's state's file" (sic) as his explanation for dropping the charges.
Kamylla's troubles are not over. The prostitution charges stayed on her record for weeks after the dismissal, and at least one potential employer turned her away because she had been accused of being a sex worker. Her family continues to struggle. For sex worker activists, Kamylla isn't just a victim of a deceptive reality show; she is a victim of criminalization.
The Houston Police Department has designated vice squads that conduct prostitution stings across the city. Some stings start on websites like Backpage.com, where police pose as sex workers or clients and arrest the people who come to meet them. The vice squads also investigate strip clubs, massage parlors and escort services that are suspected fronts for prostitution, according to the department's website. The vice squads are highly effective. Houston police made 878 prostitution-related arrests between April 1 and September 18, according to police records. That's an average of about 160 arrests per month, although the records do not specify how many of those arrested were alleged clients and how many were alleged sex workers. At least 228 arrests were made in May alone.
These numbers astonish Claude d'EstrÃ©e and Jillian "JJ" Janflone, the director and graduate director of the Human Trafficking Center at the University of Denver, respectively. They called the numbers of arrests an indicator of "exceptionally aggressive policing." What these numbers cannot tell us is whether anyone's life was improved by this aggressive police intervention. "A prostitute is not a prostitute is not a prostitute," Janflone says. "Every human being is different, so they experience sex work differently."
Despite high numbers of arrests, the head of the Houston vice division, Capt. Dan Harris, says his squads are beginning to look at prostitution differently because they now recognize that some prostitutes are "victims of human trafficking." Like other law enforcement agencies across the country, the Houston police now justify massive prostitution busts as missions to "rescue" sex trafficking victims, and hundreds of sex workers and their clients end up in handcuffs in the process.
"You want to help people but you have to make the arrest to get them the help they need," Harris told a local reporter in September after his squad arrested more than 20 people for prostitution and released their mug shots to the media. "We really do care about the women. Even though we're arresting them, we don't want them to go back to that life."
"You're not helping people exit a lifestyle if you are forcing them into exiting that lifestyle."
It's unclear how many of those arrested return to "that life," as Harris calls it, but many do end up in jail or prison in the meantime, whether they are human trafficking victims or not. Texas has some of the most punitive prostitution laws in the nation, and even a first-time offender can spend up to 180 days in jail. A criminal record makes it difficult to find work and access social services, so it's no surprise that people convicted of prostitution return to sex work after their lives are interrupted by arrest and incarceration, because they have few other options to make ends meet. In Texas, a second prostitution charge can carry a jail sentence of up to a year, and a third charge is a state felony that carries a minimum six-month prison sentence of up to two years. (Texas' Republican governor, Greg Abbott, recently vetoed legislation that would have reduced penalties for certain prostitution offenses.)
This is where Griffin's programs come in. Griffin says she has 51 participants in Houston's jail and another 211 in Plane State Jail, where many sex workers convicted of prostitution in Houston and Dallas end up. She also works as a "recovery coach" for hundreds of prisoners at the Henley State Jail. She cautions that not all of her clients are in lockup for prostitution charges alone; some are also convicted of drug and robbery charges, as some "pimps" will force women to steal and sometimes "johns" refuse to pay up.
Griffin says many people she works with suffer from sexual trauma and drug addiction, so she "starts the actual healing process when they first come in."
"The majority of the people ... were not willingly wanting to be prostitutes," Griffin says. "If they didn't have substance abuse issues, they would not prostitute." Some people are eligible to have their sentences reduced and their records wiped clean if they complete the program. Griffin says her rehabilitation program gives people the chance to recognize that they "have a problem" and start working toward resolving it, which is better than simply arresting and locking them up for trying to survive.
Experts like d'EstrÃ©e and Janflone, however, say police should not be arresting people to rescue them from the sex trade. Being arrested and incarcerated is traumatic to begin with, and jail is no place for victims of human trafficking. As for sex workers, who are by definition not victims of human trafficking, the police-driven "rescue-and-recovery model" robs them of any kind of personal agency by assuming that they must be "saved" by an outside force. It also robs them of basic freedom. "You're not helping people exit a lifestyle if you are forcing them into exiting that lifestyle," Janflone says. "There is no consideration that these people can make decisions on their own."
D'EstrÃ©e said that he, along with others who have worked for years to stop human trafficking, have come to embrace the harm reduction model, leaving the rescue-and-recovery model in the dust. Harm reduction is just that - a range of strategies that empower individuals to reduce the potential harms of activities they are involved in. For sex workers, this could be as simple as providing access to health care or resources to practice safer sex, or even facilitating opportunities to find a different job altogether, if that's a viable and desired option. "I want to be supportive of someone who [does sex work], whether they want to get out of the life or reduce the amount of harm they face," d'EstrÃ©e says.
D'EstrÃ©e says the rescue-and-recovery model is not about reducing risk; it's about forcing people to stop making supposedly "immoral and illegal choices." "There is a patriarchy that we revisit on people all the time by telling them that we know what's best for them in mind, body and spirit," d'EstrÃ©e says. "I am not convinced that is true."
Forcing those who sell sex to attend rehabilitation meetings and Bible study sessions for their own good, as some rescue groups do, only "re-victimizes" them, especially if they were trafficked in the past. Throwing them in jail when they refuse to comply is even worse. "We've just decided that they must be inherently immoral or that they are children [because they sold sex]," d'EstrÃ©e says. "We treat them as some combination of immoral or infantile human beings, so they don't deserve dignity."
A growing number of human rights advocates agree that the frame needs to shift. In August, Amnesty International's global council made headlines across the world when it approved a policy recommending that governments decriminalize the buying and selling of sex among consenting adults. The World Health Organization, UNAIDS and dozens of anti-human trafficking, LGBT, labor and sex worker rights groups all backed the policy, which cites the harm reduction model as an effective way to tackle the social challenges around sex work without trampling over human rights. The policy also recognizes that, where sex work is criminalized, police tend to profile marginalized people as sex workers, pulling them into criminal legal systems that deprive them of rights, dignity and access to social services.
Griffin agrees that police profiling is a major problem and says cops need to be educated about the social stigmas and stereotypes surrounding sex work. She supports "community policing" and wants to teach cops how to tell the difference between someone on the street who is in recovery and a suspected criminal who should be arrested. However, she also believes there are advantages to police intervention and even incarceration. "I am not against an in-jail rehabilitation program for prostitution because at least it keeps them away from the pimps and the sugar daddies and the boyfriends, so I can keep their attention long enough ... to break the cycle," Griffin says.
D'EstrÃ©e and Janflone argue that having a captive audience is not the same as helping people. "You are using the long arm of the law to grab customers for yourself," d'EstrÃ©e says. "Her livelihood depends on the fact that these women keep getting arrested and keep coming to jail."
Griffin says that We've Been There Done That practices harm reduction. Members of the group that meets outside of jail work with the local health department and hold community outreach events where free HIV tests, safer sex supplies like condoms and other resources are available for free. Participants also volunteer at food pantries. This engagement raises awareness about issues that matter to the group, Griffin says, and gives them something positive to do during their recovery. Volunteering in civic and community affairs helped Griffin turn her life around, and she wants to help others do the same thing. "All I do is give out facts about my life, suggestions, hope and structure," Griffin says. "It's a very simple recipe."
"Her livelihood depends on the fact that these women keep getting arrested and keep coming to jail."
Griffin's recipe appears to be working for those who attend We've Been There Done That meetings of their own volition, especially when it comes to supporting each other in staying off drugs and out of abusive relationships. Many of Griffin's clients do not enter her circle voluntarily, however. They enter in handcuffs and attend jailhouse meetings on court orders. Others, like Kamylla, may attend to appease judges or probation officers. Asking people to do community service when they get out of jail may not seem very controversial, but asking them to appear on a television show is another story all together.
A TV show following Griffin and people in her program through their recovery process is now in the works, and the news set off alarm bells for Janflone and D'EstrÃ©e. "8 Minutes" was a disaster that should not be repeated. Publicly outing people who have done sex work can put them in danger, and Janflone and D'EstrÃ©e worry the show could send the wrong message by conflating sex work with drug abuse and human trafficking. Many of those who attend We've Been There Done That meetings have already been traumatized by incarceration, social stigma and possibly even sex traffickers, so why put that trauma on video that could end up on YouTube for the next 20 years? Just because someone has been busted for sex work in the past does not mean they can't be humiliated again. "We have taken away her dignity if we somehow think that she can't be further humiliated," d'EstrÃ©e says.
Griffin says the TV show, which is tentatively titled "Invisible in Plain Sight," is meant to educate the public about the realities of the social problems that her group tries to tackle. She is not getting paid to appear on the show, and she rejects the critics in the sex worker movement who claim that she is exploiting her participants' misery in order to further her career and public profile. "I'm not trying to be famous because, guess what, I was a famous drug addict and I am not looking for fame," Griffin says. "I am looking for healing."
Griffin hired the production team from Houston's public television service, which is run through the mayor's office but takes outside jobs for extra funding, according to a member of the production team who spoke to Truthout on background because she is not authorized to speak to the media. The show will probably not run on the local public channel because of its content, but other TV stations have shown interest. Unlike "8 Minutes," the team is a government outfit bound by certain ethics, and participation is unpaid and voluntary.
"Voluntary" is a squishy word when cops, judges and jail cells are constantly looming in the background. Janflone wonders what happens to the women who refuse to participate in Griffin's programs or pose for the camera in the "media circus" with which she has surrounded herself. Does Griffin advocate in court on their behalf as well? Do they serve longer sentences or face more charges?
D'EstrÃ©e is not ready to write Griffin off as a bad actor, but he says that, in the anti-trafficking world, "the road to hell is often paved with good intentions." He points out that, by reputation, Griffin "makes promises and helps people out." Griffin does much of this work on her own time and budget in order to help the people in her program, but d'EstrÃ©e says she may also be instilling them with a deep sense of obligation. "This is a classic thing," d'EstrÃ©e says. "If you feel like you have been rescued by someone, then there is a debt."
Consider one We've Been There Done That member who did several stints in jail before a judge told him that he could be facing two to 10 years in state prison if he continued getting in trouble. He then met Griffin, who helped him get out of the legal snafu and work toward supporting himself legally. He says he knows little about Adrian Garcia but volunteered for his campaign distributing flyers because Griffin's assistant asked him too. "I'm supporting Kathy because Kathy supported me," he says after the meeting. He seems uneasy when asked about appearing on the show, which could out him as a former sex worker to thousands of people, and admits that he has never been on TV. He then says he would consider appearing on the show to support the group.
The whole thing makes sex worker activists like Domina Elle furious. "Are you kidding me?" she says when told about the planned TV show and the We've Been There Done That meeting. "It really drives me crazy. Crazy. It's like they really just want to grind them up into nothing, and it is all in the name of helping them?"
D'EstrÃ©e agreed that people who sell sex for whatever reason are at constant risk of losing their personal autonomy. Our patriarchal society often treats sex workers, especially women, as if they have somehow forfeited their rights to privacy and dignity. In reality, many sex workers are just doing work that is in demand because it can be difficult and often illegal, or because they have few other options and are simply trying to survive. Unfortunately, many people who say they are trying to help or "rescue" people in the sex trade approach them with the same stigma. When people like Kamylla enter Griffin's circle, it is assumed that they are guilty of a crime, a wrongdoing, and must be reformed, even if they haven't been convicted yet.
It's Griffin's job to help people turn away from drugs and sex work, and, even if those two things don't necessarily go together, she takes great pride in her work. "We have to retrain ourselves on how not to break the law and how to follow even the silent rules," Griffin tells Truthout over the phone. It's a strategy that worked for her when she was caught up in addiction and the criminal legal system, and the same system has hired her to apply that strategy to others.
Sex workers like Elle and advocates like Janflone and d'EstrÃ©e, however, do not see sex workers as rule breakers in need of rehab. Those who want to leave the sex trade should certainly have options for doing so, but leaving should be a choice, not the result of a punishment or mandate forced upon them for their own good. Sex workers should be empowered to make their own decisions and advocate for their own interests, and that means having more options for staying safe and healthy, not less. Just as no one should ever coerce or traffic people into the sex trade, no one, whether they be a cop, a judge, a missionary, a probation officer or a social worker, should leave sex workers with few options besides giving up their personal time to be "reformed" or "corrected," let alone taking the risk of appearing on TV.
Elle is sick of seeing her people pushed around. That's why she supported Kamylla, and that's why she and many others like her are fighting to change the laws that force sex workers into the margins in the first place. "It's hard when you are criminalized and you risk your butt just to have a voice, so once we have criminalization lifted, we will be able to unify at a more profound level, and we should be able to unify at a profound level," Elle says.
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.